Mahfouz's Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth
In the history of literature, perhaps the most explored genre is the historical novel. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the present day, authors have taken historical facts and interpreted them novelistically. When no facts are available, the author may extrapolate missing parts of the story from two sources -- either through the interpretation of the existing scholarly data or through the author's imagination. These two approaches to 'filling in the gaps' of a historical novel can either appease the historian and displease the literary critic or please the literary critic and upset the historian. Very few novelists can produce a historically accurate novel that is also pleasing to a literary critic; to do so would be very difficult because the novelistic plot structure hardly ever follows the structure of truthful historic events. A novelistic writing about a battle in World War Two would be bound to either an accurate portrayal of the events around the main character or a convincing depiction of the people involved. If the author chose to write about turrets, casualty statistics, and troop movements, he would surely sacrifice much of the artistic content of the novel. If the author chose to focus on character and plot, then the writer couldn't portray the event with the specificity it requires. However, the exception to these guidelines appears when a novelist chooses to write a historical novel about a time or a person when large portions of the historical picture is still either unknown or up for scholarly debate. This condition presents itself infrequently to the historical novelist, in circumstances where few people witnessed or spoke about the event, or through an event so ancient that the vast majority of the historical facts surrounding it are either lost or interpreted and reinterpreted. The common element between these conditions is that the intended audience, largely uneducated in scholarly theories of the period, would be accepting of facts presented to them.
Thus, Naguib Mahfouz, in choosing to write about the aftermath of the pharaoh Akhenaten, becomes a historical novelist not necessarily bound to the conventions of factual portrayals. The author joins a long line of historical novelists who have, with varying results, examined the Amarna period. Since Herbertson's first fictional account of the period in 1890, novels set in the ancient Egyptian Amarna period have shifted thematic focus according to society's need for commentary. If a feminist needed to write about a strong female model, the author would adapt Nefertiti to her goals. If an imperialist wanted to portray the glories of empire, then Akhenaten became a bold, defiant leader. If a theologist wanted to examine alternatives to Western religions, then Atenism became his model for Oriental monotheism.
Naguib Mahfouz's Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth, as a historical novel, provides the reader with a rather balanced model between...